WASHINGTON/TORONTO (Reuters) - U.S. environmental regulators have cleared the path for a stalled copper and gold mine in Alaska by agreeing to settle current lawsuits and other issues over the project, which had drawn environmental concerns over its potential impact on the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a statement on Friday, said the settlement does not guarantee the proposed Pebble mine project in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay region would ultimately win approval, but that its review would now be carried out "in a fair, transparent, deliberate, and regular way."
The Pebble Limited Partnership mining company will terminate two lawsuits it had filed against the EPA under the previous administration of Democratic president Barack Obama, which had sought to block it.
Backers of the project had been hopeful that Obama's Republican successor, Donald Trump would allow it to proceed. Shares of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, which owns the massive Pebble deposit, gained more than 500 percent in the last year, as Trump won the U.S. election in November and took office Jan. 20.
In February 2014, the EPA took the unusual action of blocking a mine before the owner applied for a development permit.
Ronald Thiessen, chief executive officer of Northern Dynasty, said in December that he expected the EPA to reverse course in the first quarter of 2017.
The company is now in discussions "with a number of potential partners," and could form a consortium to develop the mine, Thiessen told analysts on a conference call.
One-time partners Rio Tinto and Anglo American both backed out of the controversial project several years ago.
Northern Dynasty plans to file permits after establishing a partnership, said executives, and is studying a smaller project design than previously considered.
"We think we're going to be able to get our permit granted in record time," Thiessen said, noting Trump's push for efficiency.
With an estimated 57 billion pounds of copper and 70 million ounces of gold resources, Pebble is the world's largest undeveloped copper and gold resource, he said.
Opponents of the mine include environmental groups as well as many native residents who rely on the fish from the Bristol Bay watershed, which EPA has said supports the world's largest fishery of sockeye salmon. Many commercial fishermen and sport fishermen are oppose it.
"The Trump administration should listen to the more than 65 percent of Alaskans, 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents and native communities, and 85 percent of commercial fishermen who oppose Pebble Mine," said Raul Grijalva, Democratic ranking member of the House Natural Resource Committee, in a statement.
In the settlement reached on Thursday, Pebble Limited Partnership can now apply for a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA said in its statement released on Friday.
The EPA and Pebble Limited Partnership also agreed to ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska to dismiss related cases and lift a court-ordered preliminary injunction, according to the statement.
Writing by Susan Taylor, Susan Heavey, Nicole Mordant and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bernard Orr